Celebrating sweetgrass Traditional craft to be focus of annual festival in Mt. Pleasant

Middleton was sewing a breadbasket on Tuesday.

Wade Spees

Kentril Washington learned to make sweetgrass baskets at the knees of his great-grandmother, Hagar Smalls, and grandmother, Sue Middleton.

Washington, who started sewing baskets when he was about 5, also learned a few things from his mother, Karen Smalls.

“We both actually learned through them,” says Washington, who is 23 and has 18 years of experience. That’s long enough to become knowledgeable about what makes a quality basket and have a few personal preferences as well.

“My stitching and weaving are lot tighter and smaller than those of the average basket,” Washington says. He says it makes his baskets, which usually are about 7 inches in diameter with a 6-inch-high wall, last longer.

“My favorite is my elephant ear, a fine-stitch basket. You would see it on a coffee table on the mantel or end table. That is one of the newer styles. It is more along the lines of decorative artwork, not so much for utilitarian uses.”

Washington will be among the 6,500-plus guests, vendors and others celebrating and learning about the baskets and more at the ninth annual Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival on June 1 in Mount Pleasant.

Making a traditional basket such as a fanner, used to separate grains of rice from husks, would take a lot of time and be very, very expensive, he says. The large basket could take as much time as a sweetgrass lamp that took him six weeks to complete.

Washington says it’s rare to find a young person who makes baskets.

Others who are part of the sweetgrass community, including Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, chairwoman of this year’s festival, agree.

They say getting more young people involved in sweetgrass arts, which now includes personal accessories, is critical to keeping the traditional craft alive.

Learning and perfecting the art takes a lot of time, says Washington, who sells baskets at the City Market with his grandmother. Just learning to start a good foundation that can be built upon probably would take a month. A beginner learning to make a basket that can last indefinitely without repairs would take a year or two.

Like Washington, Kayla Snype, also of Mount Pleasant, started working with sweetgrass very young. Seeing her grandmother, Henrietta Snype, make baskets sparked her desire to learn the craft at age 6. Kayla’s grandmother first taught her how to start the base of a basket and later guided her progress toward making a finished product.

While Kayla, 16, is not constantly working on a basket, she plans to continue the craft throughout her life. And when she has children, she will teach them how to make baskets.

“My great-grandmother taught my grandmother, and it’s been in my family for generations,” she says. “A lot of young people don’t take an interest because it takes a long time to get your basket neat and not have your stitches too big. If more don’t do it, the craft will not go on.”

Although still very young, Kayla has completed several baskets, including one that was exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Historically, the baskets were made by males.

When Washington is selling baskets at the City Market, visitors sometimes are surprised to see a man making them.

“I tell them it traditionally was a male art,” he says. “They are very encouraging. A lot of people don’t want to see the art form die away.”

Although Washington recently signed with a modeling agency and is working to develop a brand, he always will be looking for time to make baskets.

The Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival has an important goal, says Stokes-Marshall, a Mount Pleasant Town Council member.

“We are having it to educate and expose people to the history and traditions of the Gullah-Geechee people,” she says. “It’s so people will come to know that the Gullah-Geechee people have played a role in the development of our country.”

Stokes-Marshall says a surprising number of people don’t know that history, including those who recently moved here.

“Over the past 15 years, people have migrated here, and they have no knowledge about it,” she says. “They see them (basketmakers) in the market and along Highway 17, but they don’t have clue about the history of how all of this came about.

“It goes back 300 years, and the Africans were brought here for their talent and skills,” Stokes-Marshall. “But they just identify them as being basketmakers. They don’t make the connection that many are descendants of those African slaves who were brought here.”

“The first year, 2005, there were 1,500 to 2,000 attendees, and last year we had about 6,500-plus people in attendance,” Stokes-Marshall says of the festival. “I get calls from people all over the country who contact me about the festival and are coming here specifically for the festival.”

Culturally and economically, it’s a significant festival, she says.